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The Big Squeeze

By Megan Kinneyn | May 2, 2007

Law Office Management

May 2, 2007

The Big Squeeze

Can Governor Schwarzenegger solve a severe prison overcrowding problem now that a judge has ruled he can't transfer inmates out of state? By Susan E. Davis

By Susan E. Davis
      Edited by Martin Lasden
      The governor struggles to relieve prison overcrowding.
      Along with olive oil, wine, and cutting-edge technology, Governor Schwarzenegger had planned to export another California specialty: incarcerated men. In fact, to alleviate an overcrowding emergency, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in November shipped 360 inmates to Tennessee and Arizona and made plans to transfer at least 5,000 more, according to a CDCR spokesperson. But in mid-February, a superior court judge ruled in response to a suit filed by both the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and the Service Employees International Union Local 1000 that the governor did not have the authority to use the Emergency Services Act to cover this kind of crisis. The judge, Gail Ohanesian of Sacramento County, also found that the transfer of prisoners violated state laws stipulating that state work must be done by state employees.
      Judge Ohanesian's ruling leaves the state with a sizable problem: According to the CDCR, the number of inmates in California's already overflowing state prisons increased 5 percent between June 2005 and June 2006, and more growth is expected through 2012. As of March, 16,000 of the state's 171,000 inmates were sleeping in gyms and hallways. The current prison system is designed to hold only about 100,000 inmates.
      In fact, the situation is so bad that two federal judges have threatened to cap the state's prison population unless conditions improve. This comes in the wake of successful class actions that claimed the overcrowding violates constitutional bans on cruel and unusual punishment. In February, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton E. Henderson demanded that the Schwarzenegger administration tell him how it plans to reduce the inmate population by next year.
      So what's CDCR to do? To ease the crisis, Schwarzenegger has proposed an $11 billion program that includes passing sentencing reforms and building more prisons. Another option would be to release elderly, feeble, or sick inmates early, as they presumably pose less risk to the public and have a lower recidivism rate than younger, healthier ex-cons. Also, the governor could release some felons from parole, which could, in turn, ease the number of parole violators returning to prison every year.
      But those ideas do not sit well with many conservatives, and the governor clearly understands that. "I will not release dangerous criminals to relieve overcrowding," he promised after Ohanesian issued her opinion. At the same time, he continued to insist that his inmate-transfer program is "imperative to relieving the pressure on our overburdened prison system."
      Still, even if the transfers eventually get the green light, is the exporting of prisoners to other states the most cost-effective solution? Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, doesn't think so. "I certainly understand the emergency situation in our prisons," he says. "But it would be far less costly to take the lowest-risk offenders?like inmates in for parole violations?and give them electronic surveillance bracelets, require daily contact with a parole officer, or transfer them into local residential programs."
      To be sure, at the outset of his administration the governor was much more inclined than his predecessor to free inmates. During his first year and a half in office, in fact, he went along with the parole board's recommendations to release nearly 80 convicted murderers and kidnappers. (Gray Davis allowed just six releases in his entire tenure.) But since then Schwarzenegger has clamped down dramatically, and it seems unlikely he'll reverse course again anytime soon.

Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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